A Revolution in Manufacturing: How 3D Printing Changes (Almost) Everything

Additive manufacturing is shaping the future of aerospace. The latest example: For the first time ever, Airbus installed a 3D printed titanium part on a series production Airbus commercial aircraft—an achievement made possible in part by Arconic, which manufactured that component. Don Larsen, Advanced Manufacturing Metallurgist at Arconic, tells us what’s on the horizon for 3D printing and how Arconic is leading the way.

Q: What makes the installation of this part a “first” and why is it so significant?

A: While airplane makers have been using 3D printed parts for quite some time, largely for components inside the cabin, equipping airframes with metal parts produced via additive manufacturing is newer. Our bracket is the first 3D printed titanium part Airbus has installed on a series production commercial aircraft, as opposed to a test airplane.

This titanium bracket is a carbon copy of a part made by traditional manufacturing, which proves that our additive piece meets all the qualification toll gates necessary to fly on an airplane. That’s no small feat! And it’s opening the door for additional opportunities for Arconic. It paves the way to other classes of 3D printed aerospace parts – structural and flight-critical components, and parts where the design is optimized, lighter or a combination of assemblies.

Q: Is 3D printing an airplane part as simple as pressing ‘print’ on a photocopier?

A: Not at all. Anybody can buy a 3D printer, but contrary to popular belief, you can’t just plug it in, add powder, and press print. There are a lot of subtleties and a lot of expertise needed to make an aerospace quality part. That’s why our metallurgical and manufacturing expertise are so critical to our success.

For example, we found we could reduce the porosity and variability in a 3D printed piece, while increasing strength, by developing our own custom-built parameters for the machine versus using the manufacturer’s parameters. We’ve also learned that parts move during printing, so we need to compensate for that in our design. We may adjust temperatures of the materials, or any number of other variables, so the printed piece is exactly what we intended to make.

Q: What differentiates Arconic when it comes to additive?

A: We’re experts in materials and processes, and we’ve been making parts that fly on airplanes since the Wright Brothers. That combined expertise sets us apart. 3D printing is complex. There is tremendous interdependency between materials, design and manufacturing processes and so our comprehensive capabilities give us a competitive advantage. Arconic has been a materials science and metallurgy company since day one, 130 years ago. Our deep manufacturing and metallurgical expertise allows us to optimize in all areas.

Q: Will we see more 3D printing in aerospace manufacturing?

A: Yes. Our customers want 3D printing because it offers improved material efficiency, greater design freedom and increased speed to market. That’s why we believe 3D printed parts will increasingly comprise a larger portion of parts that go into making an airframe and engine. Arconic is helping drive AM adoption by tackling 3D printing from all three angles: direct, indirect and hybrid. For example, our proprietary Ampliforge™ process combines the benefits of additive and other advanced metals processing techniques. Dramatic changes in 3D printing occur practically every day, and the advancements are coming fast and furious. Will AM completely displace traditionally manufactured products? Not likely. But will it supplement and complement traditionally manufactured products? Yes, absolutely.

Q: What’s the biggest surprise about additive manufacturing?

A: AM re-shapes our ideas about design. When you take a traditionally-made part and optimize the design for 3D printing—meaning you use computer modeling to put material only where you need it—the parts take on very organic shapes, often times as if they came from nature. Weight savings can be 30-50 percent over traditional manufacturing processes—and we can do it faster and with less material. Additive changes (almost) everything.